A drow Jedi, formerly an Imperial Soldier
1: Valas Rilynath
“Again!” shouted Master Rilynath. “This time keep your right blade a little higher for the block. You’ll be fine if you kill your opponent with the first blow, but you’ll rarely be so fortunate. You can’t dedicate your entire strategy to one strike.”
Fryn reset his stance and practice dummy and began the form again, this time focusing more attention on his right hand. Ironic, as the entire form was predicated on the need for right-handed fighters to practice attacking with what would once have been considered their off-hand.
Fifteen attempts later, the master returned to watch Fryn drive his practice dummy backward on its track, each stroke turning it through the complicated sets of gears that prevented it from moving unless each strike landed in the appropriate point at the appropriate angle. Rilynath merely waved at the dummy, indicating his desire for Fryn to reset the badly dented wooden man to its starting position. After watching a second run through the form, he gave a short grunt and walked to the next station.
As he reset the exercise for another run-through, Fryn smiled to himself. It wasn’t praise or congratulations, but a lack of criticism was the best one could expect from Valas Rilynath, possibly the most well-known drow Sith in the Emperor’s service. In his prime, Master Rilynath had been the hero of a dozen skirmishes with rebellious factions, using his two long swords and the Force in tandem to fell countless enemies. The cause of his being recalled from active service was a mystery to anyone Fryn had ever spoken to on the matter. He now scouted new Imperial recruits for the best and most dedicated to form his own special unit, each drilled in tactics, history and swordplay with the intent to make them the next Master Rilynath. No more than a dozen were chosen from the Imperial ranks every two years, and some two-year periods would pass without any special promotions to the squad. Those who passed the grueling 18-month training period and subsequent test mission usually found themselves receiving a prestigious commission in the Emperor’s service. Those who showed talent with or connection to the Force were invariably apprenticed to a Sith master to continue on their path to becoming another Rilynath.
It was his need to hone his connection to the Force that had first brought Fryn to the Imperial army. Certainly, many of his clan had left home to serve the Empire, but none of them had possessed his ambition — no, his calling. The Force had been with him since he was a child. He could feel it in his blood, in his breath. It was a part of him, and he was a part of it. But being apprenticed to a Sith master takes more than personal certainty, and without manifesting any of the more visible signs of a Force adept, Fryn had needed to walk a longer road to becoming a master.
He’d learned of Master Rilynath’s elite training program within weeks of his reporting for service. Fryn’s natural ambidexterity had made this his best and most likely chance to have his connection to the Force recognized. He’d had to wait six months for the next group of trainees to be called to Master Rilynath’s service, but he was an instant favourite for the honour. Along with nine other youths — none of them drow like himself and the Master — Fryn was removed from regular service to study directly under Master Rilynath at a remote space station none of them had ever heard of. A year of rigorous training later, Fryn stood second only to one of his recruitment class.
The clatter of practice swords had become a familiar beat to which Fryn now lived his life. Between sparse and simple meals and lamentably short periods of sleep, there was only history, strategy and — most of all — swordplay. Proficiency in two swords was beyond many people; mastery was a goal attainable by only the most gifted. Of the nine who had been chosen for the exclusive training program, two had failed to show sufficient ability to overcome their single-handedness. Another had returned to more routine service as a result of his ineptitude in strategic thinking.
Chancing a glance across the training floor, Fryn espied Torgash Nisk finishing one of the advanced forms. The half-orc flew through the final three strokes flawlessly (Well, almost flawlessly, thought Fryn.) before delivering a punishing telekinetic strike to throw his target off-balance. Both swords were then employed in a fatal finishing strike that few opponents would stand against. Fryn considered the telekinesis a bit of an extravagance, as the swordplay required for the first third of the form would be enough to defeat most rank-and-file soldiers.
He attempted to keep his envy of Torgash in check. There was no benefit to focusing on what another had. The Force may have blessed the half-orc with its manifestation, but Fryn’s time would one day come. And he comforted himself with the thought that Torgash’s bladework was really no better than his own. In some ways, he was sure, the hulking, brutish figure of his master’s star pupil kept his forms from being as elegant as Fryn’s own. After all, the exercises were invented by a drow; why then should another drow not attain mastery of them more easily than others?
As Fryn finished the form for perhaps the forty-second time, a whistle was blown, and the six recruits who had yet to fail out of the program all assembled into ranks for more concerted practice. As always, Fryn was placed just right of Torgash. “Nice work out there,” Torgash said unironically. “That’s a tough form, and you work through it as if it were nothing.”
Fryn nodded his thanks for the compliment while trying to suppress a seething resentment. The most infuriating thing about the half-orc was that he didn’t even have the decency to be conceited about his being the best of their group. How could you even have a proper rival if he was going to be so gods-cursed helpful all the time?
Master Rilynath observed while another instructor — one Fryn hadn’t seen on the station before — led the group through a series of exercises meant to improve their two-bladed strikes in single combat. A simplistic exercise, from Fryn’s perspective. He instead found himself probing again his connection to the Force. He could feel it there, in him and around him but somehow still just out of reach. Between following the instructor’s directions, he glanced momentarily at Master Rilynath, beyond his prime but still more formidable than most could ever hope to be, his perfectly tailored black armour and jeweled swords accenting perfectly his naturally menacing features. If he could manifest some kind of ability in the next six months, Fryn would be on his way to being a Sith lord just as powerful and respected as the drow who stood watching the recruits practicing. It’s only a matter of time, he told himself. He still almost believed it.
2: The Balance
“It’s the Emperor’s divine right!” Melchus shouted, indignant that anyone could disagree with him on such an important matter. “To speak otherwise is treason!”
“Sure,” Fryn conceded. “That’s our position as soldiers. But from the perspective of of a Forcist, the Sith should be maintaining balance, not seeking domination.”
“What is the Force for if not for domination?” Torgash asked. “From the perspective of the Sith, I mean. There are multiple schools of thought, of course, but the Sith are dedicated to power, and the Empire is the surest channel to such pursuits. It’s only right that we serve the Emperor, as we have done for generations.”
They’d had this same discussion in different words on multiple occasions, Fryn being the only one of his batch of recruits to argue a more neutral path. Of the group, only he and Torgash had any real interest in the Force and its mastery or nature. “So you say,” Fryn said. “And so you have said many times, but you feel the Force within you, as I do. Tell me that it desires such a warlike path. Is that what it’s telling you?”
“‘Through power, I gain victory. Through victory, my chains are broken. The Force shall set me free,’” Torgash quoted. “No goal or concept is higher to the Sith than this.”
“Victory, yes. But not domination. We are to seek power, but that need not be used to control and subjugate others. Our goal is strength and self-perfection, victory over ourselves. The Emperor wishes to cloak the stars in a veil of darkness, but the Force cries out for balance.”
Melchus spat on the floor in disgust. “And you know better than the Emperor what the Force desires? You who have never touched the Force? Arrogance!”
This was how the argument always ended; one of Fryn’s fellow students would insult his inability with the Force, and that was the end of it. He’d always had the self-control to not lash out physically against these insults, but there was no time like the present to start. And Melchus was an obnoxious ass more often than not. “I don’t have to move objects with my mind to feel a connection to the Force. We are all a part of it, and it is a part of all of us. While I seek the dark side, I still understand the need for balance. The Emperor’s campaign would disrupt that balance, and I know that is not what the Force would want.”
Torgash shook his head. “I mean no disrespect, Fryn, but Melchus is right. Until you have felt the Force flow through you, you cannot understand how it feels. It drives me to seek ever greater power, an all-consuming need that I know does not come from within me. And if I, an unapprenticed novice feel this way,” Torgash looked up, presumably imagining the Emperor in his palace to be in that direction. “If I feel all of this, then what must the Emperor, with all his mastery of the dark side, feel?” He looked back down at his two companions, seeming disoriented for a moment, as if his awareness had just returned from a distant place. “That is the will of the Force. I have heard it, and I know it well. And if you, as you say, one day possess the ability to channel the Force, then we will speak on this subject again. Until then, we have said all that can be said.”
He turned to leave, presumably to his quarters for a brief rest before their upcoming history examination. Melchus said something annoying and probably unwarrantedly superiour, but Fryn didn’t hear him. He glared furiously at the retreating form of Torgash, angry at both his rebuke and the kindness with which it had been delivered. He reached again for the Force, feeling that this would be the perfect opportunity for his innate abilities to manifest and prove once and for all both his personal worthiness and the validity of his argument. Just a nudge at Torgash’s back is all it would take to vindicate him in so many ways. But nothing came, and that damn fool Melchus was still droning on about something or other. Fryn briefly considered initiating a physical altercation with the intolerable human but then remembered that a sparring session was scheduled for tomorrow. His frustrations could wait until then. Melchus always kept his left guard low, and the wooden practice swords would be a much more effective tool against stubborn human heads than Fryn’s bare hands, anyway. He walked away plotting his petty revenge and trying not to think about his most recent failed attempt to utilize the Force.
Melchus had been his second opponent of the morning and was now nursing a still-growing goose egg just above his left temple while sitting out the remainder of the practice session. Fryn watched while Torgash clashed with one of the guest instructors, a bulky human warrior who preferred a two-handed sword. The Master had said on many occasions that it was best for them to learn to fight against multiple styles, as honing their skills against only one another would leave them blind where other opponents were concerned. While Fryn believed their preferred style to be superiour, the human had quite a few years of practical experience on Torgash and was almost the same size as the hulking brute. Torgash spent most of his time in a defensive stance, using both swords just to fend off the more aggressive fighter’s onslaught.
Even with the occasional Force ability, Torgash had proven no match for the newcomer, and he returned to the bench and sat next to Fryn. “Formidable!” he exclaimed breathlessly. After a few heaving breaths, he continued. “That man has fought Jedi, I’ll wager. He knows how to even the playing field when the Force is brought to bear against him.”
Fryn simply nodded his acknowledgement of the statement, not wishing to encourage further analysis of the battle. He’d surely be hearing about it throughout the rest of the day from the other students anyway, unless a more interesting match-up than the Master’s star pupil against the week’s guest instructor were to occur. Unlikely.
Three more pairs of duelists were randomly determined and their matches settled before Fryn was called up to face Torgash. Though they could be educational, Fryn found such duels to usually just be a lesson in humility. He and Torgash squared off at the appropriate distance and waited for the whistle to call the beginning of the fight.
Fryn recalled having heard that in imaginary games of strategy played out on square tiles, when two opponents clash often enough, they eventually find that their first several moves are always the same. So it was between him and his half-orc training partner. As ever, they circled clockwise for a quarter of an arc before Torgash made his first lunge with his right sword. Fryn parried it with his own right, reaching across his own body to do so. Leaving his left shoulder open was a feint that Torgash had long ago learned to see through, though at the cost of quite a number of bruises. The hulking adept instead chose to make another stab for Fryn’s parrying forearm which the drow would always block with a flick of his left blade. From here, the pair would disengage one step, smile knowingly, and continue their duel in a less scripted manner.
After two minutes of slashes, thrusts, blocks and parries, the combatants had only a handful of minor touches to show for their efforts. Master Rilynath began shouting encouragement for them to be more aggressive, to take control of the fight. Fryn knew what was coming. He could always feel the energy gathering around Torgash’s hand before the Force-fueled push came. It was this stale move that had taught Fryn to never get too close to a wall when fighting the half-orc. Torgash thrust his right hand forward a short way and uttered a cry of some sort. Fryn felt himself pushed irresistibly backward. While the attack was nearly impossible to dodge, Fryn had learned through a year of trial and error how to minimize the effect. Even as he flew through the air, he kept his guard up to parry the inevitable follow-up strike. Torgash came in with both swords before Fryn could regain his feet, and though he wasn’t struck down immediately, Fryn was once again unable to rise from under the onslaught to anything but a prone position.
The good-natured fun of their initial clash had faded in an all-out struggle for supremacy — one that Torgash always won.
As Fryn kicked his feet to propel himself away from Torgash while making a meager defense with both swords, he felt a fury rising inside himself. Fryn was disgusted once again by his own inability and ineptitude. He blocked a strike with his left blade only to have that wrist struck when his right block came in to late. “Unanswered point!” the Master’s voice rang out. Fryn heard the smile behind the words, though he couldn’t take his focus off his opponent. Master Rilynath’s favourite pupil was once again demonstrating his superiority. The powerful achieving more power, as it was meant to be.
Another five strikes were blocked before Fryn chanced a blow at Torgash’s leg. The half-orc, more nimble than his appearance would indicate, stepped lightly over the strike and landed a short stab just above Fryn’s attacking elbow. “Unanswered point!” The call infuriated Fryn, just as it had done hundreds of times before in the past year. Always second-best. Always a step behind. Always defeated.
Fryn knew that to break the cycle, he would have to regain his feet. He rolled backward to avoid a strike and put some distance between himself and Torgash. He lifted himself with his left hand as he got his feet planted on the floor and blocked an incoming strike with his right blade. The larger and stronger of the two by far, Torgash knocked Fryn’s feeble block aside and struck with his second blade for Fryn’s head, a killing blow that would end the match. Again, the drow raged inwardly. Every gods-cursed time!
Fryn glared impotently at the incoming strike and gave a wordless shout, a sound that communicated a year’s worth of frustration, resignation, resentment and enraged powerlessness. But as it left his throat, Fryn felt it as more than just a shout. It was infused with something more — something at once alien and unmistakably familiar. Is this…?
The strike never came. Fryn’s shout had stunned Torgash, and while the half-orc still stood, he was momentarily immobile. By pure reflex and instinct, Fryn struck. And struck. And struck. A year of failure was embodied in five distinct killing blows. A distant whistle was blown after the first, but such a meaningless sound was nothing compared to the imperative Fryn had been given. Power had given him victory. Victory had broken his chains, and the Force had set him free.
The third whistle blow brought him to his senses as Torgash fell to one knee, dizzy from at least one head injury. Fryn was declared the winner of the match, and his manifestation of the Force had been so subtle that only one or two present could determine why. Torgash still seemed dazed by whatever the shout had done to him, though it could have just as easily been a concussion that caused that glazed look in his eyes. Fryn tried not to take too much satisfaction in that, but what was he here for if not to accumulate power and overcome his enemies?
The rest of the day passed without incident, though Torgash didn’t rejoin them until the evening meal. Though never verbose, Fryn spoke even less to his compatriots than usual as he pondered the implications of what he’d done. He’d always felt the Force within and around him, but now he saw a way to touch it. While he doubted he could paralyze someone at will, he could feel himself bending the Force around him in much the same way he had felt Torgash do so. This had been his breakthrough moment, his vindication. He would now be able to manifest the force and, after graduating Master Rilynath’s program, be apprenticed to a Sith master. This was the power he’d sought.
4: Proving Ground
The party crept silently through the wooded underbrush. Quietly enough, at least to be undetectable through the noise of some nearby machinery. Quintus signaled for his two companions to stop before creeping ahead just less than a hundred feet and signaling for them to follow. Fryn and Melchus joined their companion at the edge of a clearing. From here, they could see the walls of the fortification.
“Two sentries by the postern,” Quintus said, gesturing understatedly. “If we all engage them at once, they won’t be able to raise the alarm before we overcome them. Then we just have to wait until they’re relieved for the door to open, defeat their replacements and make our way inside.”
“Risky,” said Melchus.
“Not to mention slow,” Fryn added. “The others are waiting by the south door for us to let them in. Any delay on our part is that much more chance they’ll be discovered.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” Quintus said with a whispered tone of annoyance. “But unless one of you has a better plan…”
Their graduation from Master Rilynath’s training program depended upon their success. As always, those who withstood the 18 months of training went on to pass a field test. Theirs was to infiltrate an insurgent base and open the primary gate for a larger force of troops that would be arriving later that night. Victory meant a prize commission for four of them and likely a Sith apprenticeship for Fryn and Torgash. Failure meant a wasted year-and-a-half and a return to rank-and-file service. Fryn, Quintus and Melchus had been chosen to infiltrate the west postern and open the south door for Torgash and the other two members of their squad. How they would do so, however, was up to them.
“We can try breaking the lock,” Melchus suggested. “Just strike it with a pommel, and…” His voice trailed off as he realized the lunacy of making that much noise.
“They’re bound to have a key,” said Quintus. “Otherwise they’d be stuck outside in the event of an attack. We just need to overcome them quickly enough and then search their bodies for a way inside.”
Fryn nodded his grudging agreement. “It’s a risk we’ll have to take. I’ll take point.”
The trio shuffled through the underbrush at a brisk pace, still making some meager attempt to remain silent. When it became apparent that the sentries had heard them, all three Imperial soldiers broke cover and ran for their targets. The guards had time to draw a weapon, but Fryn was on them too soon for them to let out more than a muffled cry. Taking advantage of their proximity to one another, the drow used a broad slashing attack he’d been practicing to cut both men down at once. Quintus stabbed down at the left one, but it was just a formality by that point.
After pausing for a moment to listen for any indication that the alarm had been raised, all three companions began riffling through the dead guards’ possessions. Melchus came up with a key after just a few moments.
Lucky break," sighed Quintus.
Melchus turned the key silently in the well-oiled lock, and they were inside. As they crept through the ruined fortress, Fryn found himself pondering the plight of those who defended it. This was, as far as he knew, the last insurgent holdout on this entire planet. By dawn, the entire world would be under Imperial domain. He thought back to his often-recited arguments against domination. Here he was, his clear path to power placing him squarely against his ideals regarding balance. Tonight Fryn was building the Empire. It was the first time in the past six months he’d thought about it. Ever since his ability with the Force had manifested, he’d spent more time exploring its power and less time pondering its philosophy. He saw what Torgash had been talking about: the dark side, fueled by his anger and resentment, demanded that he seek power. It wasn’t a thing to be thought about, but a goal to accomplish.
Wordlessly, the infiltrators crossed the base to find their next target. They espied four sentries on the inside of the south gate. Next to the gate were the stairs they were to ascend to open the main gate for the primary force. An attack here would rouse the sentries on the outside of the south gate to reinforce their comrades inside. Then Torgash’s unit would strike, pincering the sentries between the two groups.
Fryn and his companions attacked the four guards, intentionally holding back enough to let them raise an alarm that could be heard by their friends outside. Fryn saw the door open just a crack before slamming shut again with the sound of a lightly armoured body hitting it. A few moments later, Torgash’s party strode through the door and made quick work of the interior guards the other three were merely holding at bay.
Torgash smiled his approval at them all. “Good work, everyone. We’re almost finished.” His arrogance and assumed leadership rankled Fryn, but he pushed it aside and focused on the mission. After this, they’d all go their separate ways anyway.
No sooner had Torgash made his pronouncement than the sound of shod feet could be heard approaching from a northerly hallway. “They’ve heard us!” Melchus announced idiotically.
“Form a line!” Torgash ordered, once again taking the role of leader whether it had been proffered him or not. At least he was being more helpful than Melchus.
As they had done countless times over the last few months, Fryn and Torgash stood shoulder-to-shoulder and used their innate connection through the Force to Battlemeld, each of them becoming more aware through the other. Just shy of a dozen insurgents were approaching them, and the landing by the south gate was just large enough for all of them to mob the infiltrators at once. Fryn considered briefly that they could reduce the numeric advantage their opponents had by standing in the narrow south gate, but if they voluntarily forced themselves back outside, they might never be able to get back in again.
The two forces clashed, and the passionate dedication of the insurgent fighters was nothing before the disciplined coordination of the Imperial trainees. Four guards fell in the first exchange of blows, and the remainder retreated a few steps and put up their guard, awaiting reinforcements.
Torgash stepped forward to confront them. “Melchus, Fryn!” he called out. “Go upstairs and open the gate for our troops! We won’t be able to fight all of them by ourselves!”
Fryn had considered this necessity himself but still hesitated to do as Torgash ordered. Pragmatism won out, though, and he ascended the stairs two steps behind Melchus.
It was a long climb to the top, and Fryn found an almost external thought prodding him to consider the extent of what he was doing. Was his elevation in the Imperial ranks and the chance to study directly under a Sith lord worth compromising his own beliefs about the Force? He could still feel his connection to the wider world through the Force and its overarching desire for balance to be maintained, now pushed to the fore of his mind after months of being ignored. It would be a simple enough matter to reach the top of the stairs, overcome whatever guards were posted there and raise the portcullis for his Imperial allies outside. But who would he become if he did? Who was he already for walking this road as far as he had?
Melchus had engaged two guards on the landing at the top of the stairs. Fryn found himself striking them down by rote rather than by any real malice or desire to see the men fall. His training had taken over, and his power gave him victory. But were his chains broken?
Melchus was saying something as they moved into the next room, but Fryn had long since learned to tune him out. “Through victory, my chains are broken,” Fryn thought to himself. But my pursuit of power has only further imprisoned me, not set me free.
His decision was made. Fryn smiled to himself as he considered the implications. He could rededicate himself to the balance of the Force and, in the process, bring failure on his fellow recruits. The dual swords of balance and resentment making one strike, just as he’d been taught to do with physical swords. As Melchus reached for the winch to raise the portcullis, Fryn struck two simultaneous killing blows to the back of his head, something he’d often wanted to do but never quite found enough reason for.
A short drop to some ramparts later, Fryn was on his way back to the west postern. Without reinforcements, Torgash would be overcome and killed. Even if he survived, there was no way the remaining four recruits could complete the mission now. The insurgents would hold their base another day, stunting the growth of the all-consuming Empire in at least some small way. At best, the mission would fail completely with all six recruits presumed dead. In that case, Fryn was a dead man and free to do what he wished. But even if his survival was discovered, it made little difference. His course was now set against the Emperor’s conquest of the stars. There was more than one way to the Force, and he could serve balance on the other side more easily than he could from this one.
The sounds of battle faded as Fryn exited the fortress. He stole away on almost the same path he’d used to arrive at the compound, this time two unsuitable companions and one guilty conscience lighter. As much as he admired his master — former master, he ammended — if Valas Rilynath was the pinnacle of what it meant to be Sith, then balance dictated that someone stand on the other side to oppose him. Fryn now knew that he would be that balance. He remembered a planet he’d learned of in his studies of star charts and various lessons of recent history. He looked into the sky, trying to determine which direction it might be in, the planet where he knew he would take his next steps toward being the Forcist he had to be. A point of light caught his eye, and he whispered a name, at once a promise to himself and a prayer. “Yavin.”